Mediapool Weekly: November 3 – November 9

Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov continues busy streak with six requests of parliamentary immunities and two critical figures from the judiciary, Large oil companies draft decrees regulating their industries, Any media outlet in Bulgaria, which criticizes the government is exposed to attacks: RWB

Commentary:

Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov continues busy streak with six requests of parliamentary immunities and two critical figures from the judiciary

Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov

In the days leading up to the next assessment report by the European Commission under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, as always, the Prosecutor’s Office gets intensely busy. Another time-zone the Prosecutor’s Office loves to become overly active boarding mania is before elections: be it scheduled or not.

On Thursday Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov announced he is requesting the parliamentary privilege of six MPs. Then on Friday of two judiciary figures.

The moves are curious on their own but consistent with the extraordinary antivivisection of the Prosecutor’s Office as of late, especially coupled with the upcoming assessment, and might very well turn out to be a clue of early elections.

The two judiciaries are Atanas Semov, who is President Roumen Radev’s appointment to the Constitutional Court and Atanas Atanassov, who is the head of the Bulgarian Judges Association: an organization highly critical of the Prosecutor’s Office.

The Prosecutor’s Office will also be launching or expanding existing investigations of six MPs in order to launch criminal investigations against them for money laundering (Bulgarian Socialist Party’s Elena Yoncheva), criminal negligence (BSP MP Georgi Mihaykov), extortion (three MPs from VOLYA, the leader of the party, Veselin Mareshki along with Plamen Hristov and Krastina Taskova) and tax fraud (GERB MP Boris Karchev).

At first glance, it seems these are some very serious steps towards clearing the political landscape of corruption and rogue individuals, and surely - across the board. Which is the definitive and essential task of the state prosecution, especially at a time of the consecutive assessment, which will likely say what all the numerous previous ones have: dependent judicial system, corruption, politically motivated prosecution.

But in looking more closely at these individual cases, some seem overly thin, others, political. Especially when taking into account what the Prosecutor’s Office does not look into, notably Movement for Rights and Freedoms honorary leader Ahmed Dogan’s curious acquisition of TPP Varna several months back.

In the case of Semov Tsatsarov has launched a formal investigation on the basis of an opinion piece, which appeared in Capital Weekly. The piece actually has little to do with an investigation into Semov, which was closed five years ago but mentions it. The investigation in question is what Tsatasrov cites as the substantial reason for the current investigation. As for Semov, Tsatsarov is accusing him of holding off from producing a judgment in a case intentionally, which is curious because the prosecutors and investigators themselves were the reason the case was hovering at square one for five years. This is one reason the move seems to be a targeted attack with no substance, another is that taking more time seems legitimate as the case’s size is 150 volumes.

The three MPs from VOLYA are already being investigated for extortion, the current request is for expansion of the investigation, as the procedure provides that parliamentary privilege is annulled for each case individually. According to the prosecutors, the MPs from VOLYA are surely going to be charged. The prosecutors are not as certain about the other three, who meanwhile immediately declared they would be giving up their privilege.

Last time the three VOLYA MPs willingly gave up their immunity but this time party leader Mareshki commented that they would think about it and announce their decision on Monday. So in this part, the story is not new, so much as it is recycled and relaunched into this week’s news cycles.

But VOLYA is still worth following in this case: VOLYA have been very critical of the coalition partner, the far-right nationalist United Patriots, lately. If the prosecutors suddenly drop or sweep the to-be charges under the carpet somehow and VOLYA then quiets down and goes on to provide GERB with much-needed quorum in Parliament, this will be a good indication that a deal has been struck.

GERB MP Boris Karchev will be investigated for tax fraud, allegations, which he categorically rejected when he announced he will give up his immunity.

BSP MP Georgi Mihaylov is facing an investigation for criminal negligence while serving in public office as chief of the Specialized Hematological Hospital of Sofia. The negligence accusations involve contracts for various supplies and medicines, which Mihaylov signed while in office chief, for which the economic Police claims to have been disadvantageous.

These two seem trivial enough and may or may not lead to something significant, but this can be evaluated in a later step, although, as mentioned above, the prosecutors cannot predict at this point whether they would be pushing charges, apart from the thee VOLYA MPs.

This leads us to the more interesting case of BSP MP and former journalist Elena Yoncheva.

Yoncheva is one of the foremost faces of BSP and very actively critical of the current government and PM Boyko Borissov in particular. According to some reports BSP had been planning to put Yoncheva at the top of one of its tickets for the upcoming elections for the European Parliament.

The Prosecutor’s Office claims that Yoncheva has laundered money, which was stolen from the since collapsed Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB). The case of the bankruptcy of KTB is trialed in the Specialized Court. The proceedings cannot begin for months now because the court is still going through the thousands-of-pages worth of indictments.

The claim that Yoncheva laundered KTB’s money initially came from GERB MPs back in July when Yoncheva was pushing for an investigation into the alleged fact that PM Boyko Borissov had bought a mansion in Barcelona for a lover of his; Yoncheva herself claimed to be investigating it. Borissov denied the allegations but the story never got full closure.

As the story gained much heat back then, the allegations of Yoncheva’s involvement with KTB and its former CEO and Chairman of the Supervisory Board Tsvetan Vassilev seemed to be GERB’s payback in the scandal. Yoncheva denied the accusations and even threatened to sue at the time, but for now, has not.

The Prosecutor’s Office explained on Thursday during a special briefing on how the money would’ve been laundered. In 2012 Yoncheva’s company (Avtorska Televiziya) established another company together with an offshore company (Dalee Trading Ltd.). The two companies agreed that the latter would transfer 315’000 leva, and then later some additional 250’000 euro to the newly established company, and Yoncheva’s company would put in 5000.

It is worth noting that all the information above (and the mountains of particulars, the Prosecutor’s Office was sure to provide) is a matter of public record and is not in itself neither a discovery nor subject to indictment.

What the Prosecutor’s Office will seek to investigate and prove is that the funds, transferred by the offshore company (a) are in fact stolen KTB funds, (b) that the person who owns the offshore in question is one of the indicted persons in the KTB trial, and (c) that Yoncheva knew about it. The fact that these funds are stolen from KTB is the reason the case is one of money laundering. And as far as Yoncheva’s own charges, the prosecutors must prove that she indeed had knowledge that the money was illegally obtained.

The Prosecutor’s Office’s domination of the news cycle will likely continue going into next week. A couple of things that deserve special attention though are whether this activation is meant to serve merely the CVM assessment due next week, and would any of the investigations and will go anywhere at all, which is a question of the extent of the political motivation behind going after the six MPs and two judges. 

In other news:

Any media outlet in Bulgaria, which criticizes the government is exposed to attacks: Reporters Without Borders

“Any opposition media who has dared to criticize the government or the pro-government oligarchs in Bulgaria is exposed to attacks”, Pouline Ades-Mevel the head of Reporters Without Borders’ EU and Balkan Desk. Her conclusion is part of the sharp position of the organization, condemning the mounting attacks against the publisher of Capital Weekly and Dnevnik.bg lately, Ivo Prokopiev, and specifically the seizure of his assets and bank accounts a year ago and the Prosecutor’s Office announcement from October 26 that it will be prosecuting Prokopiev for selling one of his companies.

“Sometimes the oligarchs use tabloids, news sites, and TV stations to smear opposition media. Sometimes the authorities resort to judicial harassment to stifle independent media voices. The constant controls, attacks, and confiscations designed to prevent these media from functioning must stop at once”, she continues.

In addition, the organization urges on the European Commission to look into the Prosecutor’s Office’s actions via the Corporation and Verification Mechanism and include a special section, focusing on investigations against independent media and media owners and publishers.

The organization also puts emphasis on the fact that Bulgaria was 36th in RSF's World Press Freedom Index when it joined the EU 11 years ago but its position has fallen steadily since then along with the press freedom situation, and it is now ranked 111th out of 180 countries, the lowest ranking of any EU member state.

Large oil companies draft decrees regulating their industries

Large oil and gas companies were the only participants in a working group, formed by the Ministry of Economy in order to draft a decree, which would regulate the future registry of oil and oil products. There is reason to believe that the actual draft of the decree has been written up personally by people connected to Lukoil Bulgaria.

Government sources tell Mediapool that this is not an uncommon practice. Often times representatives of an industry are the ones who actually draft and prepare decrees and bills, which are the very documents, meant to regulate relations within these industries. In a way it is not so much that there are lobbyists, who push for a specific agenda, it is the other way around: as if the government itself lobbies for specific business interests. It should be noted that lobbyism is illegal in all forms in Bulgaria.

The document in question outlines how oil and oil products’ wholesale distributors, storage companies, transport companies, and other economic operators in the industry should be registered in the new registry, which should be launched by January 28, 2019.

A draft of the decree was published on October 30. Curiously enough, when one was to click to see the document’s author, the name of Yulian Pekunov came up. Pekunov is a representative of the Bulgarian Oil and Gas Association and is also known for being Lukoil Bulgaria’s attorney. The oversight by the Ministry of Economy to put up a file, for which the system credited Pekunov as the author seemed to be a serious one. However, once Mediapool sent an official inquiry, asking the ministry to explain why the author of the decree is a non-government official, connected to the largest player in the market, the ministry quickly took down the document. When it uploaded later the same draft, the author of the document this time read the Ministry of Economy.

The ministry’s explanation why Pekunov’s name came up as the author of the document was a technical mix up involving the ministry’s experts working directly in a document they requested of the association, instead of a fresh document.

Regardless, the question as to why the association is the only representative (and the one with the highest stakes) of the industry, invited to provide input in preparing the draft. Now that the document is put up for public debate the rest of the stakeholders may provide feedback.

The draft decree has high requirements for the operators to be included in the registry, and while those can easily be fulfilled by the largest operators on the market that is not so for the medium and small businesses looking to register. Being registered on the other hand will become a requirement for conducting business in the registry, which puts many companies in risk of discontinuing their establishments.

There won’t be new construction on Vitosha mountain, only lift replacements: Tourism Minister Nikolina Angelkova

Following last week’s reports that the workgroup, working to amend the Management Plan of Vitosha National Park, is making provision, which would allow for expansion of the ski zone in the park and more construction, the Minister of Tourism Nikolina Angelkova told bTV that she would definitely not allow for any of that. According to her the reason for amending the plan is purely to provide the legal basis to permit the replacement of the redundant lifts and installations, which are currently in place on Vitosha, and which in her words cannot happen under the existing legislation.

Bulgaria will be the reason the EU won’t be able to apply the Istanbul Convention: Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva

Ekaterina Zaharieva

Bulgaria will be the reason why the entire EU will not be able to apply the Istanbul Convention, Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said during a regular hearing in Parliament. According to her, since one country essentially opposes the convention, the EU cannot enact it.

The convention received unprecedented and overwhelming backlash, both public and political. Instead of introducing it to vote in Parliament, GERB submitted it to the Constitutional Court, which ruled the convention unconstitutional. This way it cannot be voted in Parliament, and ultimately ratified.

Brussel’s patience for Bulgaria’s polluted air has run out

Bulgaria has failed over the last year-and-a-half to improve significantly the air quality and the fine dust particles in its cities. Now, the European Commission has given the country a two-month deadline to fulfill the EC’s decision from April 2017 for adopting measures to improve air quality, otherwise, the EC will refer the case to court, and this time it will seek fines.

The previous case against Bulgaria about air quality was from 2015 for systematic violation of the thresholds for air pollution between 2007 and 2014, and not adopting any measures to prevent and combat the problem. The ruling then was essentially for the government to adopt measures and to permanently lower the air pollution within the permitted threshold.

As Bulgaria has done little to nothing in this regard and the results are correspondent to the actions taken, Brussels will again take the country to court but this time will seek fines.

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